Quick fix for auditory overload?
November 20, 2009 7:34 AM   Subscribe

My ability to hear volume seems fine--I hear distant birds, quietly chirping insects, etc. However, I have trouble understanding people when there are other people talking, and it's affecting my business. Is there a quick fix?

I've seen this great thread on hearing aids, and this one that mentions auditory processing disorder.

I'll see an ENT or audiologist when I'm back in the US, although I kind of suspect that this is more of a sensory processing problem than a physical one. Either way, I'd really appreciate any tips for how to cope now, while I'm on the road. I'm on an extended business trip.

Possibly relevant:

- I have no problem hearing quiet sounds, including insects that others can't hear.
- I'm easily bothered or distracted by all types of sensory input, such as bright lights, movement, and sensations like a clothing tag poking me.
- I can distinguish and follow one instrument out of several in an ensemble. I just can't do that with words.
- This has been an issue all my life but seems to have gotten worse in the last few years (I'm 48).
- I don't have lots of ear wax or any other obvious physical issues.

I easily learn languages and melodies by ear and love to listen to recorded books. The problem is 100% limited to understanding what one person is saying when there are other people also talking or when there's background noise.

I take pressure off myself by telling people that I have trouble hearing. I also position myself so I can see the other person's lips, which helps. But many business functions are really frustrating--talking with people in exhibit halls, business dinners with more than 3 other people, trying to hear a speaker when the door to the room is open and I can hear movement in the hallway... Usually it's clear that I have more trouble hearing than do others in the group, because I'm the only one who keeps asking people to repeat themselves.

Have you dealt with this? Is there anything I can do or take (on the road, no prescriptions available) to improve my ability to filter out extraneous noises? Relaxation techniques? Magnesium? Anything? I've got several more weeks of this ahead of me.

posted by PatoPata to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you need a hearing aid.

An audiologist can diagnose the issue for you.
posted by dfriedman at 7:40 AM on November 20, 2009

Sorry, I have no solution for this, but I do experience exactly the same thing. My hearing is also perfectly good, but put me in a room with loud background music or a lot of people talking, and I'm effectively deaf to anyone who tries to talk to me.

I was partially deaf until the age of eight or so; I've always assumed that my brain just didn't develop the ability to hear selectively (which I've read is something the brain learns in early childhood).
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:47 AM on November 20, 2009

Sounds like your hearing is so acute that you have trouble filtering out stuff. Especially since you mention insects that others can't hear, which suggests to me that your upper range is still functional.

Harpsichordist (50) talking here - who is certain that his hearing still functions exceptionally well, but has always had a similar problem. Position yourself so that your telephone ear, i.e. the one used to analyzing speech, is nearest to the person speaking. Take people aside when a conversation is important.

And no: INYHAS (...Hearing Aid Specialist) either.
posted by Namlit at 7:50 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

You can have good hearing in some ranges, but hearing loss within a specific range; definitely see a specialist for testing.
posted by Billegible at 7:54 AM on November 20, 2009

As anecdotal evidence, I actually went to a hearing specialist for this same problem, and they told me some people just have a harder time filtering out sounds than others but that I do not need a hearing aid. I was kinda bummed, because it pisses people off that I have to say "what?!" all the time, but according to that audiologist there's not much he can do. And if you think about it, it doesn't really make sense to have a hearing aid. The aid just amplifies sound and I have no problem hearing things, only distinguishing them.
posted by kthxbi at 8:00 AM on November 20, 2009

Similar problem here. I have acute hearing (it has been tested) but put me in, say a noisy bar, and I for the life of me cannot hear conversations well enough to participate. Very frustrating - I feel like a social dud.
posted by Rad_Boy at 8:58 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

My daughter has significant hearing loss in her right ear. She is pretty much deaf on that side. She has no "depth perception" when it comes to noises. She can't tell where sounds are coming from, and she has a hard time with background noises especially during conversation.

Is it possible that you have diminished hearing in just one of your ears? If that's the case, your other ear may be working well enough that you still hear fine, it just messes with the way you hear. If so, then maybe just one hearing aid might help you.

A audiologist is really the only one who's going to be able to give you the answers you need.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:39 AM on November 20, 2009

I bet you have a frequency drop-out. Hearing doesn't degrade uniformly at all frequencies.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:49 AM on November 20, 2009

Cocktail party effect - I think this is largely learned behaviour - i.e. spend a few evenings in a busy pub and you will start hearing differently.
posted by Lanark at 10:53 AM on November 20, 2009

I have had this problem since childhood. Due to severe ear infections at a young age, I suffered upper hearing loss. As the ear specialists tell me, this is why I have trouble distinguishing individual sounds when there's a lot of background noise.
posted by Atreides at 11:29 AM on November 20, 2009

You're probably going to have to take people aside and, when you can't, get them to rephrase themselves while your processing issue's going on.

It's annoying, I know. A relative has a "processing deficit" that the audiologist didn't want to label as APD (she made the "ew, pseudoscience" noise for whatever reason), and there really isn't a good fix other than a lot of "could you say that again, I caught the part about X but I'm not quite hearing you properly."
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:08 PM on November 20, 2009

I have a similar problem. I can hear the filament in a lightbulb vibrating but I cannot discern many spoken word (many spoken by my wife who accuses me of "selective hearing").
I was tested by an audiologist and it was discovered that I had what is known as a "cookie-cutter" disability which is hereditary. There is a lessening in the reception in the frequency right in the vocal speech range. (Dad had the same thing.)
Years ago I tried hearing aids but they attenuated everything! I would sit at my desk and hear the clicking of keyboards four aisles away! We would go out to dinner and I could not hear anything over the cacophony of everyone's silverware clinking.
My understanding is that the newer hearing aids are much better at boosting the range that is needed without adding extraneous noise.
posted by Drasher at 12:30 PM on November 20, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for your responses. I think I have about the same amount of hearing in both ears, because I can locate the source of a sound easily. I just can't get words when other stuff is going on. I do, however, have a "phone ear" and will aim it at the person as Namlit suggests. I'll also go to an audiologist when I'm back in the States.
posted by PatoPata at 5:07 PM on November 20, 2009

Modern hearing aids incorporate digital signal processors, and they can be programmed to selectively boost particular frequency ranges. An audiologist can test your whole range of hearing to determine if you have a dropout, and can program a modern hearing aid to boost that particular area in order to make your frequency response more linear.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:16 PM on November 20, 2009

if you not only aim your "phone ear" at the speaker, but briefly cup your hand behind it as you lean in, it will give the speaker the universal "i can't hear you, but am trying in this noisy environment" signal and they are likely to lean in and/or speak more loudly/more distinctly. i agree with lanark that you may be out of practice with hearing in those conditions, too; in college, i used to go to noisy clubs/bars regularly and got very used to hearing conversations there, but that's been years ago, and it takes a couple rounds of noisy-bar-attendance to get back in the swing of it.
posted by miss patrish at 10:38 PM on November 20, 2009

I'm guessing you are male. You may have any number of contributory causes to the effective hearing impairment but I think they are all fundamentally tied to the fact you are male. Not an answer, I know, but I have long noticed that women seem to be able to discern conversation in a busy audio environment far better than do men.
posted by bz at 10:41 PM on November 21, 2009

Response by poster: I'm guessing you are male.

I'm female.
posted by PatoPata at 3:07 AM on November 22, 2009

Response by poster: Chocolate Pickle, thanks for the reassurance that hearing aids can boost particular frequency ranges, because the last thing I want is for all the distracting noises to get even louder.

Thanks also for the posters who shared stories about early hearing loss and its possible effects on processing speech. I didn't have hearing loss that I'm aware of, but I did begin speaking later than was expected, and my parents were distracted by a major illness and might not have spoken to me very intensively for the first year or two. I also had a speech "defect" for awhile (didn't say "ing" properly). All fodder for the audiologist. In the meantime, I'll be cupping my hand behind my ear, reading lips, and trying hard to focus. I'm finding that sometimes it helps for me to repeat to myself what I just heard.
posted by PatoPata at 3:23 AM on November 22, 2009

Oops. Well, then. nevermind.
posted by bz at 2:37 PM on November 23, 2009

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